An Interview with Dean Srikant Datar

Israt Tarin, CEO
Raseem Farook, Campus News Editor

Ahead of his upcoming move into the Dean’s House, Dean Datar takes some time to talk to the Harbus. Israt Tarin (MBA ’22) and Raseem Farook (MBA ’21) report.

On January 1 this year, Srikant Datar was appointed the 11th Dean of the Harvard Business School in the school’s 112 year history, replacing Nitin Nohria, who stepped down after 10 years as the Dean. As Dean Srikant Datar prepares to move into the Dean’s house, the Harbus sits down with him to talk about taking on the role in these challenging times. As the Dean zoomed in, he seemed upbeat, full of energy and very enthusiastic to convey his vision to the students. In our short 30-minute interview we traversed topics such as the Dean’s vision for HBS, what he hopes to achieve during his tenure, the message he wants to convey to students and what he is most looking forward to about living in the Dean’s house.

We wanted to begin by congratulating you on being appointed the 11th Dean of the Harvard Business School. We know a lot about your journey from India to the US but we wanted to understand how the experiences in your early life led you into academia and shaped your views and values on the business world.

My early experiences always pulled me toward academia because my father was a professor. He founded the Nautical and Engineering College [in India], pre 1947. I learned from him that the biggest gift you can give somebody is your knowledge, and you should always give it. I saw from the way his students reacted to him that it was a powerful experience—people appreciated being given knowledge. Even though my father never pressured me to or said that I should [become a professor], I always knew that I would.

The rest of my early experiences in business came from my work in the Tata Administrative Services with Ratan Tata. As it turned out, by a lucky coincidence, my very first assignment was with him. My thoughts about the business world were formed by the House of Tata, which is deeply oriented toward thinking about business and what it means to contribute to society. We read about Jamsetji Tata and the fact that he founded the steel and the power industry to help the country develop. Then you learned about the trusts, and how you think about trusteeship and what it means to be wealthy. Ratan Tata never shows up in the list of the topmost wealthy individuals in the world.  However, if you see who is the most respected, his name is right at the top. Hence, I always thought about business as a very important contributor to society. I always thought of business as a way in which individuals and families are helped. It is a way of lifting people out of poverty. I saw business as a force for good all the time.

And then, of course, you think about the kind of work that business individuals do. I always think of it as a highly intellectual activity, because what can be more difficult than to make decisions under uncertainty? The future is going to unfold, you have no clue what is going to happen and you’re going to take whatever information you have to make decisions.

I admired the value that business creates in society, I admired the good that you can do for other people, and I admired the activity of management in itself. Fortunately, in my case, those came together as a professor of business.

Thank you for sharing that. You mentioned during the March check-in webinar that you have been on a “listening tour.” What have you heard and what actionable steps have come out of those conversations?

I have now engaged with nearly a thousand individuals in either small groups or big ones. I have gathered pages and pages of notes from these interactions. I took all of that—and I should note I unabashedly don’t mind calling myself a geek in terms of thinking about some of these things—and put it into a machine learning algorithm for natural language processing, because how else are you going to make sense of all of this? I used another tool as well called “topic modeling analysis,” that uses a machine learning technique that I had used in some of my earlier research called Latent Dirichlet Allocation. It tries to form word clouds in different areas and it is very helpful in providing correlations. You can correlate what the students, faculty, staff, and alumni said. You then begin to get a picture that is powerful.

I’ve structured what I’ve heard into two areas. The first I call our ambitions. And the second I call our engines. With regard to ambitions, there were three that emerged from all this data analysis. One is how much importance our community gives to the role of business as a force of good in society, and this was very heartening to me. I am not just talking about ESG issues, though clearly we have to think about climate.  I’m thinking about equity issues and how we as business leaders can reduce the divisions that remain in all parts of the world. These are moral questions in some cases, and social questions in other cases. But I think what I learned from my listening tour was that these are first order economic issues right now, and if we don’t address these problems, economic growth is going to suffer.

That leads me to the second ambition, which is how we continue to do research that has impact. I’m calling it “research in action.” I don’t want the research to be only for the journals. I want the research to make a difference in the world. How do we make sure that our research is able to do that? How might we combine different research ideas—on society or digital transformation or machine learning or any other areas—such that the sum of all the research that we do is greater than the parts? Towards this, let me share with you one of the ideas that is emerging. As you know, we have research centers all over the world. It is very likely that our next research center will be set up in the heartland of the United States. I come at this from a design thinking perspective, which is that you must have deep empathy and a deep understanding of what is happening, and the best way to do this is by being on the ground.

The third ambition is transformation of our educational programs. I think there are a lot of interesting things we can do in the MBA program. You’re already seeing some of that in the required curriculum with data technology. We can do much more on entrepreneurship. Clearly we need to do a lot more around differences and managing with differences, so you will see a lot more on equity issues. And of course, what I’m really excited about is lifelong learning—how when you get admitted to HBS, we should be making a commitment, given the technologies we now have, that we would be interested in helping in the development of our students throughout their lives, not just in the two years that they are here.  

That now brings me to the three engines. The first engine is racial equity, diversity, and inclusion. I’ve always believed that my role as Dean is to do whatever I can to help every member of our community to develop to their fullest potential and capability and be the best that they can be. If I can keep thinking about that as the gold standard that I want to work with, then that is going to be an important engine. We’ve had a fabulous year in faculty recruiting. We are welcoming the most diverse class in the history of the school. We are also doing a lot of work around the cases that we are developing.

 The second engine is technology. I believe there is a great opportunity for us in digital transformation. I think if we did digital transformation at the school ourselves, that will allow us to meet all these aspirations that I’ve spoken about. I always think of technology and people as two sides of the coin. Every time an organization says that they want to think about technology, you should always think about people on the other side of it. I often cite Mahatma Gandhi who always talked about science without humanity as a major sin. To me trying to think about these two together is very important.

And my last engine is Harvard itself and partnering with the university because we have SEAS and the Enterprise Research Campus coming. I also want to partner with the university on humanities, so we can strike a balance.

The school released an action plan for racial equity and social justice a few months ago. Can you give us some updates on the plan, what the metrics are and if we are on track? Also, could you talk about your plan to address other dimensions of equity as well?

When I say equity, I am concerned about racial equity, as well as ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic equity. I am equally concerned about the events that happened at Gilroy in El Paso for Latinx individuals and the violence that is happening now against Asian Americans. So I am thinking about diversity in all its forms. Let me tick off a few items. First, we are hiring a Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer. The search firm that hired Sherri Charleston, the new DEI officer at Harvard, is the same firm that is leading the search. We are down to five very impressive candidates, one of whom we are working towards onboarding by the summer. So that’s going to be important, and will lead to a number of these initiatives that we were talking about.

It has been a banner year in faculty recruiting. 13 individuals have accepted our offers. Eight are women. Seven identify as people of color. And five of the seven are underrepresented minorities, including four who identify as black or African-American. Please remember, they were not selected on anything other than total merit. We increased the funnel in a way that we could get to them. It aligns with my general view of the world—that talent is very evenly distributed, opportunity is not.

In terms of increase in cases, we are sourcing cases and tracking diversity, and we are enriching the curriculum through courses like Scaling Minority Businesses. And I could talk to you at considerable length on what we are doing with the OneTen initiative at the school and how that might help the world, and around entrepreneurship in these areas. And of course, all of this is only possible because of the team. I’m just reporting to you because you happened to be interviewing me. I’m not the one who got it done—the team should get all the credit for this.

What do you think should happen during your time as Dean for you to consider your tenure a success?

It will be achieving the various visions that I spoke about earlier—did we make the shift whereby we thought about business as a good for society in an important way, did we come up with big ideas in research that had a major contribution to the world, were we be able to reimagine the programs that we talked about,  were we able to have racial equity and attention to inclusion in that way? And, of course, I hope it won’t be that long before we are able to do the digital transformation that I have said would be important. Every one of those is a marker, I hope to report on each one of these annually, at least, if not faster, and make sure that there is progress. I think it is a very exciting time for us at the school.

Who do you consider to be an effective leader in today’s business world?

The two who I’ve admired a lot are Ken Chenault and Ken Frazier. What they are trying to do with the OneTen initiative, which seeks to hire one million black youths who have no college degree over 10 years and provide them living wages in corporations. To even set that ambition—it’s a massive task! There are others on that team, including Ginni Rometty, Kevin Sharer, and Charles Phillips. I just find it inspiring that they want to go after such a big goal. 

The current RC students took a leap of faith while making the decision to join HBS last year, missing out on key experiences such as FIELD. With the vaccine within reach and a whole EC year ahead of them, what would you like to say to them? 

I’m hoping it’ll be a really good EC experience. We care about developing students to become amazing leaders and want to do what we can to help them have a transformational experience. We will continue to be careful in the fall, and take actions that will keep everyone healthy. I’m looking for as much “normalcy plus” as we can get—leveraging what we learned this last year that might otherwise have taken ten years to achieve. Whether that’s asynchronous learning that we might be able to accelerate, whether it is more things that we might be able to do using the hybrid technologies, I think there are a lot of exciting things that we can do, and I want to do it for this year’s EC class precisely for the reasons that you’re asking.

There will still be some uncertainty.  Depending on the availability of vaccines and visas, we will try to offer more IFCs next January, both internationally and in the US, so that students have an opportunity to do immersive field work in teams.  That depends on whether the government is permitting travel and whether it is going to be safe. But we are looking forward to welcoming everyone back on campus and having classes. The density, I am fairly sure, will be higher based on what I’m hearing. So we’ll all be back and able to do all that we’ve done in the classroom.

What advice would you like to like to give our ECs, who are graduating at a time of global crisis and uncertainty?

I don’t want to share everything I am going to say at Commencement or no one will show up for my speech!

Jokes apart, I want to tell the ECs that 12 to 15 years later when you look back on this period, you will not remember all the things that you missed, which is what we think about right now, but you will remember all the things that you gained. The stories and memories of this time will be unique to this class. You’ve demonstrated a lot of what I think is the advice I am going to give. It will be about resilience. It will be about the way you quickly adapted. It will be about generosity and partnership. As you know, I was very active in thinking about the design of online classes as well as the hybrid classroom. It required a lot of partnership, not just with the students, but with the staff and the faculty. I’ve often said I will remember that period as probably the most growth I had as an individual because of what we did.

And I think you will see it the same way when you look back. I also think this period has built in a certain amount of ability to face adversity and still move on while being positive, constructive and optimistic. Also being patient and forgiving when things don’t work out very well. I have always thought about COVID as the passage to HBS’s future but COVID will also be a passage to the future for all of you as well.

What are you most looking forward to in living in the Dean’s house?

Well, the first would be having a dog on campus! I’ll have the opportunity to meet a lot of people while walking our dog Tango, who was rescued by my daughter Gayatri. I am looking forward to being part of the community and I love meeting people. So that would be great fun to do. I know Monica and Nitin enjoyed it very much; Swati and I will as well. And then, I must say the short commute—it’s a three minute walk from my house to the Dean’s office. Although, Nitin has warned me it can take much longer because of all the interesting people you meet along the way!

Israt Tarin (MBA ’22) came to HBS after working in the Oil and Gas industry as a Chemical Engineer. She was born in Chittagong, raised in Dubai, and she lives in Houston. She loves reading stories about people and wants to contribute to these stories being told to a wider audience.

Raseem Farook (MBA ’21) is a 2nd year MBA student at Harvard Business School. Prior to HBS, he was working in Columbus, Indiana, where he helped to launch two new products in the automotive industry. Originally from Chennai, India, he cannot tolerate cold weather and can be seen wearing sweaters in August.